Re: Advocacy

Matthew S. Tomaso (Tomaso@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Sat, 13 May 1995 15:16:49 -0500

The perceived environmental crisis, like AIDS, is not an issue of blame, but
rather an issue requiring action. The use of othering tactics to divide up
(and conquer?) our species is a strategy of the insecure.

I would like to echo Read's and Spear's calls to 'put the present discussion
on the ground'. However, I am not really satisfied with the variety of
assumptions that seem to be necessary regarding Spear's 'grounding' of the
discussion. The following note critiques Spear and then elaborates on afew
of the points he raises which I think are quite productive. As I have
argued before, it is not really possible or profitable to generalize about
Native North American culture(s), let alone 'the indigenous'. In other
words there was and is no such thing as a unified Native American culture or

Firstly, on several occasions throughout his post, Spear suggests that
causality lies within economic variables, not ideology. i would argue that
causality, if it exists, lies in many more components of culture than simply
economy. Look around you! Rather than privileging data that the
archaeological record has been able to provide under the economistic/vulgar
materialist or 'cultural' materialist paradigm(s) as teh only acceptible
kind of data, I think that at least one of the following points should be
1. 'True and absolute' causes of social and/or economic change, if they
exist, are archaeologically unknowable (in the sense of ontological or even
practical truth) just as they are rarely really knowable in the present.
2. All facts are multicausal, and ideology is particularly important in the
construction of all social facts, including the perceptual organization of
empirical facts as well as history, and the selection of facts to be considered.
Thus, it is not really satisfactory to suggest that ideology has nothing to
do with causality in this or any other regard, especially where we have no
direct access to the ideology under consideration (if we are operating
within the aforementioned paradigm).

Spear goes on to state that aboriginal North Americans were largely low
density hunting and gathering populations with self-regulating population
control mechanisms. This is a reasonable suggestion, but it doesn't really
square with the facts. First, we don't really know what kinds of controls
acted on prehistoric human populations, though we can make educated guesses
based on loosely applied analogies to ethnography (which has its own major
problems of authenticity). The gatherer-hunter model generally holds true
from about 13000 ybp to about 3000 ybp in North America, but it rapidly
loses currency thereafter in most places south of Northern New England and
Canada. Notably, the vast majority of Native North Americans were either
agriculturalists, 'complex hunter-gatherers', or horticulturists living in
constructed environments in imperial (re: colonizing) societies. What do
you think of when you think of terms like Missippian? Aztec? Zapotec?
Maya? Puebloan? Mogollon? Zuni? Anasazi? Kwakiutl? Iroquois? Caddoan?
Low density hunter-gatherers? I think not. Though it's a mesoamerican
city, Tenochtitlan was the largest city ever visited by Cortez and his crew.

Despite all of this, I find myself in substantial agreement with Spear's
general suggestion that we should separate agency (ideological intent) from
ecological effect, since they are clearly different things and since one can
be archaeologically reconstructed, while the other is more difficult to
interpret. Contemporary ideology certainly does seem to support great
concern about perceived environmental problems. One can trace back the
historiography of this trope through the writings of European agronomists
spanning back into the Middle Ages, as Karl Butzer has already done. The
later Rousseuan hallucination of the 'noble savage' is not simply an
extension of this ideology, but a perversion of Native American realities,
projecting from a European constructed memory of the European good old days
- when Europe could feed itself without vast environmental modification -
good old days that, appropriately, occured several centuries before the term
'Europe' began to have any meaning.

I advocate advocacy on all fronts, but I do not advocate misrepresentation.
As several others have pointed out before me, 'indigenous' peoples are
_peoples_ - not examples, models, samples, data, or anything else. As
people, the indigenous (whatever that means) should have the same rights and
respect that those who do not consider themselves indigenous have. Honest
self-representation will, hopefully, result in honestly given respect,
misrepresentation, by self-appointed advocates, well meaning passersby
and/or the self can only result in dishonest relations. History is
constructed, but, moreover, it is not uncontested.

Matt Tomaso.
Anthropology. University of Texas at Austin.